Thursday, April 25, 2019

So You Want to Make a Zine?

Well, you probably don't want to make a zine, but let's pretend, because I made one and have some pictures.

For our purposes here, the zine in question is going to be a stapled-on-the-spine object, about 20ish pages long, mostly black and white unless you really want to start spending some money. I designed such a thing.

I had a handful of photos that I'd made, that I liked ok and considered to be tentatively freighted with meaning. Meaning which, alas, I could not myself discover. And so, I made up a little magazine with the pictures recto and an inviting space verso and some preamble text inviting the holder of this printed object to write in it, draw in it, carve it up, or otherwise seek some meaning. Inscribed also is a generous license, the substance of which is: if you have a PDF, you are allowed to print it; if you have a printed copy which you have modified in any way, you may obtain digital copies of the pictures from me and use them any way you like.

The thing is called REACT because I hope that the reader will.

The pictures I did in the way I always do, in GIMP, but you may use whatever your normal photographic tools are, if any. Let us consider the pictures themselves a solved problem.

I did the design and layout in Google's Docs tool, which is terrible, but there you have it. It does not understand left/right pages, all pages are equal to Docs. Usually I use OpenOffice or Blurb's toolchain. InDesign, I dare say, would be quite a bit better than either of those, and stratospherically better than Google's atrocity.

If you make left and right margins equal, this defines the inner margins. Then you can physically trim your book to define the outer margins. Alternatively, you may be able to use Docs with two columns on a landscape page, and thereby "lay out" a spread at a time, rather than a page at a time.

Let us assume, though, that you are using a fairly normal editing tool, and struggling through the limitations of same. Don't forget to insert a page or two of front matter (a half-title page, a dedication, a colophon, a masthead, whatever suits your fancy, but do put something in). Try to give the pages a little structure. Don't use many fonts, and keep them simple.

At some point here you will have a PDF file, I dare say, filled with pictures, some design elements, and perhaps some text. At least a little.

The problem you will now encounter is how to get this PDF into "booklet order" printed two-up (two pages to the page). I assume here that you do not wish to print quarto fashion, or any of the more exotic folded forms. We're printing folio fashion here, each printed sheet intended to be folded once. Your first sheet of paper will need to have the first and last pages printed two-up on one side, and then the second page and second-to-last page two-up on the other side. Folded in half, this will make the outermost layer of your zine. And so on.

Here is the first content sheet of REACT. The title page is the first page, and the colophon page (on the other side of the sheet) is second. The blank page you see first is actually the last page of the book, and the picture of the toy cowboy is second to last. Visualize folding this thing, and then inserting other folded pages into it, as if you were a filing clerk.

I know of 4 solutions here.

The first is to lay your book out in the right order in the first place, which is crazy, and fairly hard.

The second is to calculate the right ordering for the pages, and put these page numbers into the Print dialog of a suitably capable printer interface. My Windows laptop flips out if I try to print pages out of order, but your equipment may differ. For a 20 pages zine you put in something like: 20,1,2,19,18,3,4,17,16,5,6,15,14,7,8,13,12,9,10,11 and request that the printer print this out double-sided, flip-on-short-side, two-up. This will produce 5 sheets of paper.

The third and easiest, I think, is a tool called BookletCreator which consumes a PDF file, and produces a re-ordered PDF file. It can also handle multiple quires, and I think it can handle quarto style and so on. This stuff is not rocket science, but nobody seems to have bothered to simply write a good tool that just does it, other than this one.

Fourth, the Adobe tools know how to do this too, in the print/output dialogs you select Booklet and, um, follow along I guess. I have not used this.

I use BookletCreator, and because I use the somewhat limited free version, I jump through extra hoops, but it works fine.

So now you have a PDF file with a bunch of stuff that can simply be printed two-sided, flip-on-short-side, and hopefully the pages will simply fold and nest into a zine.

Print them out. Print one copy out on cheap paper, and assemble it, before you go ahead and print out 100 copies on expensive paper. After you have assembled it, write PROOF on it somewhere obvious, so it does not create confusion later. Keep it around for reference.

Now you have 1 or more copies of this thing printed out. Perhaps you printed covers separately (maybe the cover is color, on different paper, or whatever). Maybe you have some color sheets, and some black and white sheets.

If you plan any hand work, now is a good time to do it. My zine, being a Rogue Photo product, has a red spine which I simply drew on to the cover pages with a Red Micron #05 pen.

Sort them out and stack them up, unfolded. Check to make sure that all is in-order and that the pages will lie correctly once the thing is folded and stapled. Check that all pages are right side up.

Now you're going to need either a saddle stapler or an extension stapler. Either way, figure out where the spine (the fold) will occur. If you're saddle-stapling, fold first then staple. With an extension stapler, you staple first, then fold. I have an extension stapler, because my wife loves me very much indeed.

Staple at the spine, making sure to keep the zine's pages absolutely square to the stapler (a saddle stapler makes this easier - if your fold is square to the pages, the staples will go in square to the pages). Do the middle staple first. Don't bang on the stapler, press firmly. With authority, but not gusto. Staple as well as you can, but don't go crazy. If something isn't placed just so or perfectly square, it's gonna work out OK anyways.

Now fold, I press a crease in with my thumb at each staple, to set the line of the spine's crease, and then run my thumb along to press an initial crease in.

Once stapled and initially folded, a bone folder can be used to sharpen up the spine. I use a scrap of waste paper to protect the zine, because a bone folder tends to polish the paper.

At this point if you happen to own a book press, or a binder's hammer, you might want to deploy it. A sheet of paper, even sleek, modern, paper benefits from pressure and time to find itself against a new sheet of paper. I stack things up, and place a weight atop the stack. Usually a couple of good heavy books. Then I leave this stack overnight. This will make the crease of the spine even more definite, and will help the pages find one another and lie together more pleasantly.

Last, trim. Most likely the three edges of the zine which are not the spine are a little ragged. One pages is a trifle higher than the next, and the pages in the middle stick out a bit at the front relative to the cover. Plus, there might be a little damage around the edges, and maybe your design didn't quite make it out to the edges of the page in the first place. Printers are very unwilling to put ink at the very edge of the page, after all.

For all these reasons, you want to trim top, bottom, and front of the zine. I use a steel ruler, an xacto knife, and a cutting mat. You might choose a good quality guillotine or other cutter capable of cleanly shearing 20-30 sheets of paper at once.

I did the printing at my local Kinko's because it's just a short walk away. They have a 32 pound paper that's very white, targeted at high quality color printing (not photographs, just charts and things, but it also renders photos rather well). They'll sell it for 20 cents a sheet (yikes!) or $16 for 500 sheets, so I did the latter, and used 120 sheets for this project. They have some very good quality Canon machines out front where you can do your own thing at your own pace, which I did.

REACT is 20 pages content, which comes out to 5 sheets of paper printed double-sided, and then a cover printed single-sided. That's 6 sheets of paper (call it 4c a sheet and pay for the staples out of the excess) and 11 sides of black and white printing at 14c a side, for a total of $USD 1.78 a copy. That is somewhat cheaper, I think, than I can get from blurb which would want something in the area of $USD 3.00 for this category of product.

Throw in color and my cost climbs. A lot. Blurb wins hands down for color, because their price remains much the same.

And there you have it. Now I am going to drop these things in random coffee shops around town, because that's what I do.

For information on the content, see this companion post on the Rogue Photo publishing blog!


  1. The pictures have excellent breadth.

  2. Finally a practical use for Tufte!


  3. Do you know Bea Nettles's excellent little guide to kitchen-table bookmaking, "Cooking the Books"? If not, it's worth a look for inspiration.

    I have to say, this is where I started out back in the 1990s, but the advent of the likes of Lulu and Blurb (and two children, and, no, those are not their names) meant I was able to put my sharp things away in a safe place.

    I still use them for greetings cards and stuff, though, and the fact that I only ever sell a handful of Blurb books, anyway, means that I am reconsidering the handcrafted option. Especially now decent double-sided inkjet papers are available. Perhaps this is the inevitable reaction to the same-iness of Blurb books? I suspect they're in trouble, too: have you ever seen so many "40% off" offers?


    1. I have not seen Bea Nettles' book! I will make an effort to see it now, though.

      Blurb prices, even list prices, strike me as impossibly cheap. But then, the shipping and handling seem impossibly expensive. But yes, there is I think essentially always a good-sized discount in play somewhere, and it is a little worrying!